Tuesday, April 16, 2019

5 Kinds of People You Should Avoid in Graduate School

There are many positives to graduate school. In fact, despite my experiences, I’d still say it’s worth attending. However, every prospective graduate student should beware of certain people. As someone who entered graduate school in 2015 and is now in the process of writing my dissertation, I’ve seen just about everything that grad school can throw at you. Indeed, when I joined up, I was fresh-faced, optimistic, and in many ways, downright naive.

Though I still believe in the overall mission of graduate school and what it intends to accomplish, it’s also true that it’s certainly not the oasis of learning and intellectual betterment that I thought it was as an undergraduate. In many ways, it’s a microcosm of the “real world,” warts and all.

To that end, I’ve decided to make a list of people you should watch out for as a graduate student, so that you’re better prepared when you come face-to-face with them. And hopefully, by spreading awareness of these issues, I’ll be helping to eliminate the problem at the source.

With that said, let's get started.

1. The Politician

The Politician is usually someone who, in person, is extremely cordial to you. Their interactions with you will be pleasant, and over time, you may feel that they are one of your friends. You’ll confide in them, and they will seemingly confide in you.

The truth, however, is that The Politician is always angling for personal betterment at the expense of everyone around them. They are kind to you because they want something from you, or think that you may know something that they can use to improve their standing within the department. What they tell you is rarely what they actually believe; indeed, they keep their true agenda out of the limelight, revealing it primarily via their actions rather than through what they say. 

It’s possible to be friends with The Politician, and to admire them to a certain extent. Some of them will still care about building an amicable working relationship with you, despite their priorities laying elsewhere. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can rely on them for anything substantial.

The Politician is difficult to identify. The easiest way to do so is to listen to what they say when they are around other people. If it is completely opposite from what they say when you’re alone with them, then you know that they are the type of person to change their views based on who’s listening, and thus, will shape their public persona based on whatever they think will get them ahead rather than on what’s right. 

2. The Sycophant

The Sycophant is like The Politician, though more treacherous. The Sycophant is so dedicated to getting ahead that they have no time to act kindly. They will sometimes put on a happy face to those they believe to be “on their level,” meaning those who have won a similar amount of accolades, but it’s never genuine.

The Sycophant is best identified by viewing how they interact with people in power, and then comparing that to how they deal with normal people. They will be extremely kind and caring to the former, indeed, so much so that you might be fooled into believing that they are nice, approachable people.

However, in situations where The Sycophant has to deal only with “lesser” people, all joy and kindness drains from their faces. They assume a cold visage, and either act dismissively towards or completely ignore said person. They also tend to be the kind of person that will try and sabotage co-workers by throwing them and their work under the bus.

For this reason, The Sycophant is extremely dangerous. Their ability to fool those in power into thinking they are kind and relatable builds trust, which The Sycophant then wields against those they deem to be inferior to them. The best thing to do if you come across them is to avoid them completely, lest you wish to become one of their targets.

3. The Trust Fund Baby

The Trust Fund Baby is common in graduate school. Indeed, it may be the most common archetype. This is because the majority of people working in higher education tend to come from some kind of wealth. 

Unlike The Sycophant, The Trust Fund Baby is not inherently bad. If, however, you happen to come from a situation where you are not receiving familial money of any kind, they can be difficult to adjust to.

The Trust Fund Baby can be a genuinely kind person, or they can be “The Sycophant.” In that sense, they run the gamut. Most are nice, though completely unaware of the privilege granted to them by their class statuses. 
They can be identified via normal conversation, since most will reveal that they come from money in some form or fashion. 

The Trust Fund Baby can be difficult to deal with, primarily because of how (seemingly) stacked the deck is in their favor. They usually come from money, so they don’t have to worry about funding to the same extent. 
They don’t necessarily need a job immediately, so they aren’t nearly as stressed about finishing their programs. Because they don’t have to work as much, they are able to finish their dissertations on time, and thus, have a leg-up on the competition when it comes to getting tenure-track jobs. 

There is not much to do about The Trust Fund Baby besides steeling yourself to the reality that they exist, and in quite large numbers. Like I said, they usually aren’t bad people. But they can be tone deaf. 

4. The Overseer

The Overseer is generally a graduate student who holds some kind of position of power. They use their position to acquire power and influence for themselves, at the expense of other graduate students.

Unlike The Sycophant, who generally works in the shadows, The Overseer is very public about their agenda. They are the ones who faculty and administrators will go to when they need to hear about what people are thinking and feeling.

As such, you should be wary of The Overseer. They can shape a department’s entire agenda based on their feedback. Simultaneously, they can single out people they deem to be a problem, and thus turn faculty and administrators against them. For that reason, you shouldn't try to confront The Overseer directly.

The Overseer can be undermined through community organizing. If they know that there is a vast majority who disagrees with them, they will shift their position. This, however, is not a permanent solution. Thus, The Overseer requires constant monitoring until they leave their position of power.

Unlike The Sycophant, The Overseer isn’t an inherently bad person. Some of them may genuinely think that they are doing the right thing. Too often though, their zealousness and pride get the better of them.

5. The Gatekeeper

The Gatekeeper can be anyone who puts you down by saying that “you’ll never be good enough because of X, Y, and Z.” The Gatekeeper feels it’s their job to guard the boundaries of academia. They delight in imposing their will on people they deem to be below them, and yet act much like The Sycophant towards anyone they deem superior to themselves.

The Gatekeeper often feels that it is their duty to micromanage the affairs of graduate students, to an extent that can feel stifling and unproductive. Their directions to you are often haphazard, having no clear pedagogical origins. At the same time, The Gatekeeper always feels they are in the right.

Most often, The Gatekeeper acts as a firewall designed to eliminate "problem" graduate students. They do this by sapping the will of students they think are intellectually inferior, slowly chipping away at their motivation to continue until they decide to leave their programs.

The Gatekeeper tends to target either people of color, first generation graduate students, or people with more offbeat intellectual makeups. For this reason, they are deleterious to the mission of making academia a more diverse and inclusive place. The Gatekeeper is dangerous to anybody who is a minority or the first of their family to attend graduate school.  

Most graduate students I know, including myself, have had to deal with at least one Gatekeeper. You will never avoid them, but if you can, you should try to limit your exposure. 

To close, none of the bogeymen listed above should prevent you from wanting to attend graduate school. Overall, graduate school is a great place to meet friends, study what you love, and practice doing real, potentially world-changing research. As with anything though, it’s best to beware of those who will try to prevent you from getting the most out of your experience. Hopefully this article will allow you to do that.

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